Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Forking Around

During the recent weeks of uncharacteristic mild weather, I've taken the opportunity to help out my future self and start preparing the garden for planting.

I raked back mulch, and hauled and spread compost. Once the compost was on the ground, I grabbed the broadfork and started forking (which is nothing like twerking, in case you are wondering).

A broadfork is about 24 inches wide with a handle on each side and heavy tines about 9 inches long, or maybe longer. I'm too lazy to measure. Most broadforks have straight tines, but the tines on mine are curved so it can double as a sweet potato digger.

Anyway, I stab the broadfork into the ground, step onto the heavy bar with both feet and wiggle side to side to push the tines in as straight as possible to their full length. To do the wiggle, shift your weight back and forth between your feet rather than pulling on the handles. This saves your arms and shoulders and gives your thighs a nice little workout.

After the wiggling (still not like twerking) I pull the fork out as straight up as possible, step back, stab, step, wiggle, pull and repeat... and repeat and repeat and repeat...

I start out forking horizontally, the length of the bed. I space each stab 9 to 12 inches apart, depending on the size of the bed and how tight the soil is. Stabs are closer together when soil is tight, to help loosen it up. A glass of wine doesn't work to get the soil to loosen up. I've tried.
Once I've gone along the length of the bed, I start at one end and fork perpendicular to the first rows, creating a cross-hatch pattern. The big photo at the top of this page should give you an idea.

When I finish forking I rake, working the compost into the first 2 or so inches of soil. This also knocks some of the compost into the holes made by the broadfork tines, helping work the compost in a little deeper. Once the bed is raked smooth, I add mulch and, voila, the bed is ready to plant when the time is right.

Using the broadfork helps loosen tight soil without destroying the soil structure and all the little beneficial microorganisms that live there, as well as saving earthworms. Compost moves deeper through the tine holes, which also create channels for better water infiltration, as well as air. Roots need air, too.

Tilling also aerates soil and works compost and such in more thoroughly, but destroys the soil structure, ripping up the fungal mycelia that keep it all together, and destroying above mentioned microorganisms and worms. Frequent tilling also creates a hardpan at the maximum tillage depth that can become impervious to air, water and roots. Not good. Tilling can work fine, but is easy to overdo. I prefer the broadfork because, even though it might take longer than the tiller, it is easier on my body and easier to do. And I don't have to worry whether I'll have enough gas or whether it will start when I pull the cord.

Other forks I love...

This little garden fork is my beloved. I use it almost every time I want to dig up something. From transplanting perennials to harvesting garlic, it is my first choice. While my broadfork also serves to dig root vegetables, it is too large for small spaces, so this little garden fork comes first. It's still dirty from the last time I dug horseradish.

And the pitch fork. I don't use it for pitching hay, since our hay and straw comes neatly baled. However, I use this fork a lot. It is essential for moving the roughly chipped wood mulch and large, undecomposed bits in my compost heap. It gets a great workout when I turn the entire compost pile each spring and fall. And it will be a critical prop if my friend ever gets around to photographing my husband and I as the iconic American Gothic. We love pitchforking so much that we had to get a second one so we can do it together.

And finally... I use these forks to eat the yummy vegetables I grow in the garden. These really are my favorite kind of fork because I really love eating my yummy veggies and fruit. After forking in the garden all day, I need lots of nourishment, too. So, where's dinner?

Monday, January 19, 2015


The Master Gardeners' demonstration gardens at the county Extension office are brown and covered with leaves. But we
know spring is coming because we just signed up for our 2015 Master Gardener projects.
Recent warmer than usual days have me thinking spring. It won't be too long before green shoots poke up through the soil. In fact, a friend recently posted photos of her snowdrops pushing their way out of the underworld. On Saturday I signed up for my Master Gardener projects for the coming year -- Public Education, Hotline, Spring Fair and manning the Master Gardeners' booth at the Farmers Market. So many opportunities to talk about gardening!

Today I moved several wheelbarrow loads of compost onto the garden, where the spring kale, broccoli and cabbage will find a home about mid-March. A couple of days ago, the bed where the snap peas will climb their trellis got covered in compost. Later this week, the beds slated for spring lettuce, carrots, radishes and other quick-growing, cool-loving veggies will get attention.

Already I've received word that one shipment of seeds is on its way. Another, larger shipment has been ordered as well. I've purchased oat seed and crimson clover seed that I will plant as summer cover crops along with buckwheat. I am looking forward to having a large bed of buckwheat roaring with dozens of honey bees seeking its rich nectar. The crimson clover also will attract bees.

By the end of this week I will have started the broccoli, cabbage and lacinato kale in little pots. They will warm themselves next to my woodburning stove until little green sprouts show against the black soil. Then they will find a home beneath lights in the front room.

But first, tonight I will plant seed of some hardy perennials.

First I found several translucent gallon-size vinegar jugs. Milk jug work well, too. Pretty much any tall container made of clear or translucent plastic works, but the gallon jugs are handy,

Then I cut and poked holes in the bottom of each jug and cut nearly all the way around the jug about 4 inches from the bottom. I left a piece uncut so the top remains attached to the bottom.

Fill the bottom with damp potting soil.

Plant the seeds,

Close the top and tie it closed by punching a hole near the top of the bottom and one near the bottom of the top and attach them with a pipe cleaner, twist tie, string, twine, wire, whatever works.

Set the finished jugs outside where you will see them frequently and remember to water them from time to time so the soil does not dry out. Yes, the soil will freeze. Then it will thaw. Then it will freeze again. That's the idea, since many of the wildflowers germinate best after a bit of freeze-thaw, called "stratification" in horticulture terms.

This method provides a better germination rate than sowing the seed
in the garden, and you won't be left wondering whether the little seedlings are your black cohosh, echinacea or some weed. What's more, the actual planting process can be done in the comfort of your garage, or kitchen,

When the plants are large enough, just lift the soil-and-root ball, divide and plant.

Easy. Right?

The only problem is that I only had three empty vinegar jugs and at least seven different things I wanted to start this way, with more such seeds on their way. If only I had remembered this little trick before I went to the recycling center the last time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Old Becomes New... To Me

The other day while heading into town something in the light reminded me that it is almost mid-January. The planting will soon begin... In another week or two, black plastic trays full of soil, seed and potential will sit next to the fire. When green sprouts show bright against the dark soil, the trays will find home on the light shelves. Six weeks later (weather permitting) the young seedlings will go into the garden soil, protected by plastic covered tunnels.

It is difficult to say just what reminded me of the lateness of the season... something in the shifting angle of the sun's rays perhaps... certainly not the weather. I woke this morning to an outdoor temperature of 6 degrees Fahrenheit... typical January weather. We've had several threats of snow and other precipitation in recent weeks, but nothing more than a sprinkle or a dusting. I would like to see some real precipitation, however, as the dry weather is worrisome.

In spite of the cold, gardening is not at a total standstill. The realization that planting begins soon also sparked a slight panic. So many winter garden projects wait to be done, remulching paths, moving stones to line some of the said paths, pruning, compost spreading. Where has the winter gone?

Green things still grow under plastic covered tunnels (this morning covered with blankets), as well -- kale mostly, but some cilantro, and one red cabbage. As light increases, they will begin growing again.

A couple of weeks ago, I dug in the dirt for the last time before the soil froze. This was not a planting foray, but a harvest. I dug the last bits of serviceable horseradish, leaving (I hope) sufficient roots for another crop this coming fall.

Finally, after five or six years of growing it, I've made use of the horseradish. I've always liked horseradish, but once we pretty much quit eating meat I kind of thought that we would have little use for it. I had the short-sighted notion that horseradish was good only for dressing roast beef or making cocktail sauce. How wrong I was.

We've taken to putting horseradish on many things. We've topped our red bean chili, spiced up our black beans further, topped roast squash and baked sweet potatoes, added punch to roasted vegetables. Lately I've had this urge to pare horseradish with apples. I will let you know how that turns out.

It appears that I've been ignoring my German roots by ignoring the horseradish. One traditional dish is shredded horseradish and red beets. Better plant beets this fall.

Not only have my German ancestors relished in the pungency of horseradish, but many, many generations of humans have cultivated and made use of this hardy vegetable. At least 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptians grew and ate horseradish. I'm not sure whether they used it as a food or medicine or both. Supposedly, a Delphic oracle in ancient Greece told Apollo that horseradish was worth its weight in gold.

Horseradish has great value in treating and preventing upper respiratory illness. Not only does it possess antimicrobial properties -- killing microorganisms that make us sick -- it also helps treat some of the symptoms.

One of the beauties of horseradish is that it is perennial; a very hardy perennial. I planted and simply ignored mine, although some cultivation information suggest it likes fairly moist soil. I've never watered it, even in those super hot and dry years. Horseradish spreads a bit and is not easy to eradicate once established, so consider well the planting site. It generally has no disease problems. And even though it is attacked by the same pests that munch on cabbages and mustards (which it is related to), that hasn't seemed to reduce its vigor.

Not only do I plan to make a habit of digging and using my existing horseradish, I hope to plant more. I prepared my first batch of it the night before Thanksgiving. The resultant "mustard gas" created by the grinding process cleared my sinuses for a good long time and caused a copious
flow of tears. If it had not been able to clear quickly, it might have even cause some damage to my mucous membranes. Prepare where you have ventilation. I made a second batch a few days later. We are nearly at the end of our prepared horseradish. The roots I dug recently won't make lots of sauce, though, and we will certainly run out of it before it can be dug again. So I will plant more this spring to bolster our supply, as we will certainly miss it when it is gone.

Horseradish is simple to plant. Purchase, or obtain from a fellow gardener, short sections (5 or 6 inches) of thin root. Usually, the end that goes down is cut at an angle, otherwise you wouldn't know which end is up. dig a hole and set the root in at a 45-degree angle, then cover, making sure the top is a couple of inches deep. Then all you need to do is wait. Or maybe water the newly planted horseradish if the weather is dry. Horseradish growers are of different opinions as to when horseradish should be dug. Some dig it in spring, others in the fall after the leaves have been singed by frost. Supposedly, spring-dug roots are more pungent. My fall-dug roots were pungent enough, thank you very much. It also can be planted in spring, or in the fall at the same time you would plant garlic.

The very young, tender spring leaves of horseradish also are edible and can add spice to sandwiches and salads. Louise Riotte, in Astrological Gardening, recommended cooking the young horseradish greens with another early spring green, nettles.

Another health benefits of horseradish is as an anti-inflammatory. You can take oral preparations and use it topically to assist aching muscles and arthritic joints, to clear up skin issues, and treat sciatica. Internally it is considered beneficial in treating urinary tract disorders, as well as to expel intestinal worms.

After digging horseradish roots, scrub off the dirt and wrap roots in perforated plastic or place in an unsealed plastic bag. Do not seal the bag, as you will find mold growing later on. Unprepared root will keep for a few months. Prepared root loses flavor and pungency fairly quickly. You can grind and use horseradish without adding vinegar, but you must use it right away or it discolors and loses potency.

To prepare horseradish
Clean and scrape fresh root.
Place chunks in heavy duty food processor or blender (I use a Vitamix).
Add water and puree. Add less water than you think you will need at first and add more as it appears to be needed.
When you have a fine puree, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar for each cup of prepared horseradish, (The blender should have measuring marks on it.) Blend just long enough to fully mix in the vinegar.
According to all my sources, the longer you wait to add the vinegar (up to 3 minutes) after pureeing, the more pungent the horseradish will be, as vinegar stops whatever process creates the mustard oil However, we can tell little difference between the batch to which I added the vinegar immediately and the batch that I waited a little while. Both are quite powerful.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Things are Mushrooming

I am always amazed at the diversity in nature, from teensy frogs to giant thousands of years old sequoia trees. Some things get overlooked, however. Like the masses of fungal growth beneath our feet. Threads of fungal mycelia stretch through the soil, infiltrating dead wood and leaves, contributing to the process of decomposition.

Some of those mycelia also attach themselves to plant roots, sharing nutrients and moisture as the plants share the food they manufacture from the sun. All in all, a relationship of mutual benefit.

The network of mycelia also serves as a plant Internet of sorts, allowing plants to communicate via chemical signals.

Mushrooms are the bits of the fungi that we see. These are only a tiny part of the fungal organism, however. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, popping up through the soil when conditions are right. They mature and spread their spores. Every year, warmth and moisture invoke numerous mushrooms in the wood chips that cover my garden paths, as well as on the bales of straw and hay waiting to be spread as mulch. Every year some new type of mushroom sprouts. The forms seem neverending.

While I have always had a great respect for fungi, I got positively excited about them after listening to a couple of presentations at the Mother Earth News Fair back in October. The first presentation focused on growing mushrooms "off the grid." Just inoculate logs, wood chips, leaves or straw with the appropriate "spawn" and after a few months you have mushrooms of the edible kind. After that presentation, my husband went to one of the vendors and bought a bag of spawn for a kind of oyster mushroom. We now have several elm logs sitting on the north side of the house that should sprout oyster mushrooms in a year or so.

The presenter later also talked about the medicinal mushroom garden, which gave me an even deeper look into fungi. Some of these fungi may become the next superheroes of modern medicine. Because they must compete with other fungi, bacteria, viruses and who knows what else, fungi have evolved a veritable factory for producing the right substance needed to defeat the next competitor. Because their is no guarantee which organism they will encounter, fungi must be highly flexible. They can produce a chemical weapon to deal with whatever organism is in their way, be it a bacteria, virus or other fungi.

This ability may make them valuable in medicine, as they will be able to produce antimicrobial substances specific to whatever pathogen a person is suffering from, providing quicker, more effective treatments. Would we even need to identify what illness the person suffers from? I don't know.

The presenter, Tradd Cotter, not only grows edible and medicinal mushrooms, but has a sterile laboratory where he conducts research on the medicinal value of mushrooms. If you would like to learn more about mushrooms, edible and medicinal, visit the Web site of Cotter's mushroom "farm," Mushroom Mountain. Fascinate yourself with mushrooms.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Winter Update

The beautiful autumn lulled us into a sense of well-being, causing me to assume that the autumn would trickle through November, perhaps into December. Our first killing frost arrived well after the usual first frost date, and I was sure we'd have it easy as we headed toward the Winter Solstice.

Ah, but Nature has her wily ways. We were "blessed" with an Arctic blast that shoved the temperatures well below normal -- maybe 20 or even 30 degrees lower than normal at times. On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 18 I recorded a low temperature of 7 degrees F. That was a week ago. Today's weather is more seasonable, although it's only 37 degrees right now.

Not only were the human not ready for such a precipitous crash in the temperatures, the plants weren't quite there, either. A gradual shift from warm to cold allows plants to move energy from their upper portions into their roots, to "harden off" buds and stems that will come back to life in the spring. What exactly was the effect of this sudden plunge?

We won't know the answer until next spring.

My Rossa di Verona radicchio before the blast.
Prior to the single-digit low, I spent an afternoon putting blankets and sheets over the plants beneath the plastic low tunnels. We were expecting rain and snow (which barely made it) and I didn't want them to get soaked. Anyway, that allowed me to put even more protection over the plants, as I threw additional sheets and blankets over the tunnels the night before the single-digit morning.

And I pulled all the brussels sprouts, "re-planting" them in buckets full of compost and wheeled them into the garage (see photo above). Now I am harvesting the greens and loose sprouts at my leisure.

The kale, broccoli, cabbage and radicchio (I finally found the name of the variety I planted, Rossa di Verona) all survived the blast. The radicchio looks a bit rough, but the "heads" wrapped in layers of outer leaves should be fine. The lettuce is very questionable. Perhaps some of the young stuff will grow out of it, but we're forced to buy lettuce now.

Anyway, I am glad that this isn't Buffalo and it wasn't all buried beneath 7 feet of snow.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Winter Races In

Don't let this photo fool you. This sun-drenched scene of morning glories growing on the back of the compost bin simply made me sigh with longing.
We are currently deep into the first week of January. Yes, I know, we haven't hit Thanksgiving yet. The weather, however, seems to think that it is January, or at least late December.

On Monday I worked outdoors in jeans and a shirt, and was still a bit too warm. It felt like May.
On Tuesday, we lit a fire in the stove and have not let it go out since. Lows in the teens and highs in the mid-20s to low 30s. And it will get colder yet with Monday night's (actually, Tuesday morning's) low in the single digits. Not November weather at all.

Hedge apples lodged in the crook of the hedge tree trunk.
So I spent Monday morning removing the frost blanket from the low tunnels, watering and draping plastic over the hoops, with an extra bit of cover inside the low tunnel for good measure. As the lows deepened this week, I started draping extra sheets and blankets over the low tunnels. Tomorrow I will harvest more lettuce and put the extra covers inside so they don't get wet and heavy with Saturday's snowfall. A little on the early side for snow, too.

On the up side, the temperatures will climb by the middle of next week.

It was a lovely autumn, though. I spent many a warm autumn afternoon listening to the gentle thunk, thunk, thud of the hedge apples falling. I don't know how many wheelbarrow loads I carted to the edge of the woods, but it's hard to believe one tree can produce so much. Fortunately, only one of the two hedge -- aka Osage orange -- trees in our yard is female and fruit producing. The other is male, so it just pollinates.

One of today's tasks in preparation for the coming cold was to insulate the fig trees. While the roots of these trees will survive our Kansas winters, the upper portions will winterkill, so they must be protected against the cold if you want to get figs. Usually, this would be done a bit later, but usually, the temperatures drop a bit more slowly. I figured that another couple of nights in the teens and then 7 degrees F might be too much. So I stacked haybales (freshly cut this year) and plastic garbage bags stuffed with ripped up row cover around the figs, then draped the constructions with tarps and tied it all down (well enough, I hope) with used baling twine.

The fig trees are trained horizontally, in a free-standing espalier form -- free standing because they are not against a wall. This photo is of the larger and older of the two fig trees. Ideally, it would be in the center of the trellis, but I started it as a one-sided espalier running east and west. It now runs sort of north and south to better accommodate the second fig, and the planting area would not handle a third post further north of the trunk. This photo obviously shows the tree during warmer days.

Some day I might even get figs.

Even though winter has come hard and fast, I feel blessed by this growing season. Both of the small freezers are full. Kale and other cole crops still stand in the garden, and I hope keep standing. Freshly washed lettuce is draining in the sink. Remnants of summer -- dried tomatoes and eggplant -- sit in the pantry.

A few days ago I dug the roots of ashwaganda, an Ayurvedic herb that I grew for the first time this year. One quart and one pint of ashwaganda tincture steeps on the pantry shelf, alongside the echinacea tincture I started in July.

The house is warm and the tea kettle whistles, ready to brew homegrown herb tea. Yes, the garden has been good to me.

(At right: One more late summer/early autumn photo. Blossoms of the tropical milkweed that hosted several Monarch butterfly larvae. However, the bug peering from the blooms is a red and black milkweed bug, which looks suspiciously like a box elder bug, but isn't.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Happy Autumn

The Autumn Equinox has passed and we are dipping deeper into the dark half of the year.

Roots dig, dig, dig as leaves shrivel.

We dig deep...


We dig...

Sweet Potatoes!

This is my harvest from a mere 13 plants in a 15x3.5-foot bed. I did nothing to the sweet potato plants all year except plant them and water them for a couple of weeks, and put bird netting over them to keep the deer and bunnies from nibbling their tender tops. After that... nothing until I dug them.

Oh, I did prune back the vines when they started to escape the bird netting.

Sweet potatoes require lean soil, so you don't have to fertilize them, and little water. Unless it's dry for a long time, they need nothing more than the rainfall. Few pests and diseases plague them. Only foliage nibbling critters. And most people do nothing to protect the batata vines.

All of my resources recommend curing the sweet potatoes at 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. By this time of year, we are well past those temperatures. However, a local market grower told me he cures his at room temperature. Good enough for me. I am not going to -- as some sources suggest -- run a space heater in a room to cure the sweeties.

Curing is important because it converts starches to sugars, making the roots taste even better. It also helps seal those inevitable nicks from the digging fork, which are nearly impossible to avoid. To make the less likely, stick the fork in at least a foot from the center of the plant. But even that isn't a guarantee.

And don't forget to attend the nearest sweet potato festivities. October has been declared Sweet Potato Month here and several events are planned in Lawrence, Kansas (perhaps elsewhere, too, but I know nothing about them). The events include a community sweet potato potluck in early November. Visit the Celebrate Sweet Potatoes -- Lawrence, KS Facebook page to share and find sweet potato recipes and learn about events here. Then look for when the new Web site is complete and online to learn even more. Celebrate Autumn. Celebrate sweet potatoes.